Featured ACE Course: Intro to Indigenous Histories, 1887–Present

14 October 2020

Head shot of Meredith McCoy

Assistant Professor and Andersen Fellow of American Studies and History Meredith McCoy has been at Carleton since fall 2019. This term, she developed a new Academic Civic Engagement class, Introduction to Indigenous Histories, 1887–Present.

In this interview, she discusses her class, the ethics of community collaboration, and the challenges and opportunities of facilitating ACE projects in a pandemic.

What goals do you have for this class, for your students, or for the community partners you’re working with, in terms of helping people to thrive and contribute to the thriving of others? 

For all of us right now, living in the midst of the pandemic can be a really isolating experience. Part of what I’m trying to do in this class is to help students feel less isolated, both in terms of being connected to a campus community and also in terms of feeling like the learning that they’re doing has purpose and is in dialogue with other entities outside of the college. 

When I first got to Carleton, I intentionally did not involve any collaborations in my first term here, even though I was teaching a contemporary Indigenous activism class, which would have been really enriching in terms of collaboration. But I explained to students that I wasn’t able to do that yet because I didn’t have the relationships. Over the last year, I’ve been able to start to develop some of those relationships. 

As is probably pretty obvious, these are the kind of relationships that you want to devote years to cultivating, not a few months. But, in conversation with partners that I had worked with previously—the Newberry Library, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and Hoċokata Ti cultural center—I started to hear about priorities that each of those organizations had that we could potentially collaborate with them to achieve. For example, with Hoċokata Ti, they have this incredible database of over 10,000 items in their collections, and they need support updating the metadata for those items so that researchers and community members can go into the database and search for items in a way that makes sense. 

To get authorization for the collaboration, we actually had to not only go through our partners at the museum, but also get approval from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Business Council. In thinking about these partnerships, there’s a need for us to recognize tribal governance and to say, we want to do this in a good way and we will only do this if we have your approval. So even though this is virtual, behind-the-scenes database work, it was really important to make sure that it was approved by all the people in the community who might have a stake in the project. 

And so thinking in terms of thriving, we are respecting that Native nation’s governance, which to me is a way of us respecting their say over how they want their community to work and thrive and and how they want things to work in their community. And then on our end, it’s giving us a chance to feel less isolated, more purposeful, and more connected in terms of our relationships to each other and our relationships to the place where we live and work. 

Are there structural obstacles to those goals being met, and if so, how do you hope to address them? 

I would say the single biggest challenge is probably that we can’t be in one place with each other. In an ideal non-pandemic situation, we would be out at Shakopee, be able to sit down, meet with people, have that sort of community space where we can eat together and visit together and really build relations in a way that is so much more natural and holistic. Instead, right now, we’re doing things in a way that’s more scripted, and that’s just the nature of having to be so carefully pre-planned for the health and safety of everyone. So that’s one huge challenge. 

Another challenge is that the pandemic limits the types of engagements that students can have. Right now, we’ve got two projects for the class. That feels really good in some ways because it means we can contribute significant labor to two projects; it hones it in a certain way—but recognizing that students have diverse interests and desires for different kinds of engagement, if this were a non-pandemic term, students might have been able to volunteer in person at other types of local initiatives as well.

How does this class intersect with other work you’re doing, or other work you see happening elsewhere, at Carleton or in the broader community? 

There is a conversation happening right now at Carleton and across Northfield about our obligations to the nations whose territories we occupy. In some places it is manifesting as a land acknowledgment conversation—in my class, I think of it in terms of our sense of mutual obligation. So as neighbors to anyone in our community, what are our responsibilities for showing up and partnering with people when they need us to partner with them? And also, what are our obligations for helping students understand that learning is something that is not decontextualized, but is something that has real and meaningful connections with the world around us? 

Part of it is, I have been working with some other faculty over the summer and now throughout the term on contemplative pedagogies and ways of bringing our whole selves into the classroom. And I think anytime you’re committing to partnering with other people, you have to be willing to bring your full self into that partnership. So in some ways, this course feeds into that pedagogical approach that I’m working on strengthening. 

In this particular class, I talk about how in the land acknowledgement that was developed through the task force between Northfield, St. Olaf and Carleton, we talk about wanting to disrupt legacies of injustice against Dakota people through acts of honest storytelling. And to my mind, this course is doing that. One of the ways we can contribute to disrupting that legacy of harm is by figuring out where Indigenous-run organizations and organizations that support Indigenous people need us to come in and work with them on projects, recognizing that anytime we’re involved in these kinds of collaborations, we as Carleton students, faculty, and staff are going to yield immeasurable benefits from just being in conversation with our partners. 

For me, everything is through this lens of reciprocity, and I try to think about that in my research as well—whether it’s in the community partnerships that I’m trying to build with the Chicago Native community, or whether it’s working with my tribe’s research review office to make sure that my work is approved in terms of its representation of my own community. Similarly, to my mind, a lot of this work that students in HIST 116 are doing with Hoċokata Ti is about making sure that Native communities have the full authority over how they’re represented and how their materials get out to the public. 

Those are threads that you can find in all of my classes and all of my research, I hope. And I do think that these collaborations support those ultimate goals of really listening to Native nations as they tell us where they need us to go and what they need us to do. And then showing up to do that.